C.H. Spurgeon, Rachel Peden, Katrina Kenison, and Me

bassThis is the story of an invisible community, where one voice at a time leads us to connect with others, in a chain back in time.

It starts with Katrina Kenison, who edited the annual Best American Short Stories series in the 90’s and early 2000’s. I love the essays she’d write as a foreword to each volume–usually loving little slices of the literate life, crisp and juicy together. For example, consider the paragraph from her essay in the 2001 volume, below. Isn’t it perfect?

Actually, her very best such essay was the one that started off the 2004 volume. I’ve used that essay a number of times with students, as a model of style and form–it seamlessly weaves a meditation on books with an illustrative anecdote, written in a way that creates comfort while it also demands engagement and action. I don’t have a copy handy just now, so I can’t provide a quote, nor is it anywhere online that I can find, but this book–along with all the volumes she edited–is worth tracking down just for her essays alone.

(She’s written other books, but I wish she’d compile one just collecting all these essays. What a treat that would be!)

 

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In the 2004 edition essay, however, Kenison mentions several older books that she’d found in a used book shop that was about to close. She tosses off titles with brief reveries about the contents–tiny taglines meant to offer whisps of joy found between those covers–and I’ve long wanted to find some of them myself.

This year I finally did. One in particular stood out to me, Rachel Peden’s Speak to the Earth. As I recall, Kenison called Peden “a naturalist of the first order.” Sounded good to me.

No library in southern Nevada had a copy, so I used the interlibrary loan program available at the university where I work part time to borrow a copy from whomever had one to share. Continue reading

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Gulliver’s Travels

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Google images result for the title…most of these are the famous scene from chapter ONE.

I read this last summer, and while it starts out strongly enough, it gets much better as it goes on–the satire gets far darker and more biting. Maybe that’s why the single part everyone seems to know and like–Gulliver being tied down by the tiny Lilliputians–is from chapter one. Nobody ever talks about the better parts later on.

The second half of the book really ramps ups the social commentary to Voltaire levels of savagery. Consider these observations of a university, from part III:

I saw another at work to calcine Ice into Gunpowder; who likewise shewed me a Treatise he had written concerning the Malleability of Fire, which he intended to publish.

There was a most ingenious Architect who had contrived a new Method for building Houses, by beginning at the Roof, and working downwards to the Foundation; which he justified to me by the like Practice of those two prudent Insects, the Bee and the Spider.

There was a Man born blind, who had several Apprentices in his own Condition: Their Employment was to mix Colours for Painters, which their Master taught them to distinguish by feeling and smelling. It was indeed my Misfortune to find them at that Time not very perfect in their Lessons; and the Professor himself happened to be generally mistaken: This Artist is much encouraged and esteemed by the whole Fraternity.

In another Apartment I was highly pleased with a Projector, who had found a Device of plowing the Ground with Hogs, to save the Charges of Plows, Cattle, and Labour. The Method in this: In an Acre of Ground you bury at six Inches Distance, and eight deep, a Quantity of Acorns, Dates, Chestnuts, and other Maste or Vegetables whereof these Animals are fondest; then you drive six Hundred or more of them into the Field, where in a few Days they will root up the whole Ground in search of their Food, and make it fit for sowing, at the same time manuring it with their Dung. It is true, upon Experiment they found the Charge and Trouble very great, and they had little or no Crop. However, it is not doubted that this Invention may be capable of great Improvement.

And this rather wry bit where the joke about government working purely and productively might seem like a lame cliche today just shows us, yet again, that there’s nothing new under the sun:

In the School of Political Projectors I was but ill entertained, the Professors appearing in my Judgment wholly out of their Senses, which is a Scene that never fails to make me melancholy. These unhappy People were proposing Schemes for persuading Monarchs to chuse Favourites upon the Score of their Wisdom, Capacity, and Virtue; of teaching Ministers to consult the Publick Good; of rewarding Merit, great Abilities, eminent Services; of instructing Princes to know their true Interest by placing it on the same Foundation with that of their People: Of chusing for Employments Persons qualified to exercise them; with many other wild impossible Chimaeras, that never entred before into the heart of Man to conceive, and confirmed in me the old Observation, that there is nothing so extravagant and irrational which some Philosophers have not maintained for Truth.

The final section of the book has the darkest humor, such as this almost invisibly veiled swipe at expansive governments spreading their influence:

But I had another Reason which made me less forward to enlarge his Majesty’s Dominions by my Discovery. To say the Truth, I had conceived a few Scruples with Relation to the Distributive Justice of Princes upon those Occasions. For instance, A Crew of Pyrates are driven by a Storm they know not whither, at length a boy discovers Land from the Top-mast, they go on Shore to Rob and Plunder; they see an harmless People, are entertained with Kindness, they give the Country a new Name, they take formal Possession of it for their King, they set up a rotten Plank or a Stone for a Memorial, they murder two or three Dozen of the Natives, bring away a couple more by Force for a Sample, return Home, and get their Pardon. Here commences a new Dominion acquired with a Title by Divine Right. Ships are sent with the first Opportunity, the Natives driven out or destroyed, their Princes tortured to discover their Gold; a free Licence given to all Acts of Inhumanity and Lust, the Earth reeking with the Blood of its Inhabitants: And this execrable Crew of Butchers employed in so pious an Expedition, is a modern Colony sent to convert and civilize an idolatrous and barbarous People.

Dante’s Paradise: A Celebration of the Celestial

danteI finished Dante’s Divine Comedy this week, and it ended as strong as it started. Paradise takes the social commentary of Inferno and the moralizing of Purgatory and then just cranks that gorgeous poetry amp up to 11. It is, by far, the most beautifully written entry in the trilogy and maybe even imbued with the deepest ideas.

Four favorite passages may serve to illustrate.

First, from canto four, we see a meditation on how spiritual truth must be understood metaphorically by our merely mortal minds. The top and bottom of this page are pithy quotes by themselves, but the body between constitutes some of the more clever comparisons I’ve ever seen:

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Next, from much later on, this part starts with lines that could apply to art and writing in general, but then wax eloquent about matters of faith, integrating mind and spirit, but ending with a paean to scripture and the Holy Spirit.

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Reviewed and Recommended: F. Paul Wilson’s Nightworld

7957849I recently had such a great reading experience! So many of the books I read are deep, or classics, or deep classics–this time I just wanted something fun. Because of that, I spent a few days in a row staying up late so I could keep reading. That hasn’t happened in a while.

Nightworld is the final book in a series that begins with Wilson’s classic The Keep. (Yes, I skipped to the end of a series just so I could get to the gripping, white-knuckled conclusion. Fight me.) Like all great horror novels, the plot is as elemental as any dark fairy tale: a powerful evil entity is making each day on Earth shorter than the one before, and at night hungry creatures come out of the ground to ravage the world. Each night is longer than the one before, and each night brings larger and more aggressive monsters. Soon, the world will be kept in permanent night, ruled by this demon and his army of monster minions. And only a small rag-tag band of human heroes can come together to stop him.

Pretty awesome. Wilson delivers. Why isn’t there a movie of this? Tons of fun. Highly recommended.

 

Notes on Best American Short Stories of the Century

I cleared 50 old books off my shelves last week, including this one, which I was really just keeping because of these notes I’d made.

Digitization is the declutterer’s best friend.

The most important thing is the mark next to each title. It’s the classic, simple teacher cheat: a check minus means I didn’t like it, a check plus means I loved it, a mere check means it was average.

It’s hard to read my scribbled reaction to each story, but that’s OK–it was hard to read them in the actual book, as well.

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The Prophet Option: A Mormon Review of The Benedict Option

41QY+zZAzfL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_If you’re an active Latter-day Saint with any interest in The Benedict Option, I have good news for you: you’re pretty much already living it.

Rod Dreher’s bestseller isn’t actually a tirade against American society–that’s too far gone to even really bother with at this point–it’s a call to arms to rescue what’s left of Christianity in the West. We do this, Dreher says, by ignoring the mainstream and living our religion fully.

Dreher is an excellent writer; his observations, anecdotes, and advice are all solid. Still, the formula he gives is surprisingly basic. The fact that this pattern is supposed to be a rebellious throwback to the seriousness of medieval monks is an even better illustration of how far we’ve gone astray than any gloom and doom statistic.

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Anna Karenina

0451524497I don’t know if there’s ever been a bigger gap between how much I loved the writing in a book with how little I cared about the story.

Anna Karenina is a thousand-page soap opera. That’s about it. There’s a good couple and a bad couple. Things happen.

But hardly a chapter went by where I wasn’t floored by Tolstoy’s incredible insights into human nature. His talent for seeing into souls and painting them perfectly on the page is practically supernatural.

Anna Karenina had some of the same major story beats from War and Peace: the long aristocratic hunting vacation, the good man who publicly calls out the scoundrel who’s acting inappropriately towards his wife, the overt Christian sermonizing in the final act, the angelic woman who tends to a dying man.

That last part was by far my favorite part of the book. Perhaps it’s a cliché, but Tolstoy is never better than when he’s writing about death.

Are we supposed to sympathize with Anna? I didn’t like her husband at first, either, but he really does turn out to be a decent man, I thought. Clearly, this is a cautionary tale, but still, I would have called the book Kitty Levina.

The Aeneid

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The Aeneid

I liked the rest of The Odyssey more than the part with all the monsters; I liked The Iliad more than The Odyssey; and I liked The Aeneid even more than The Iliad. In fact, I love how The Aeneid is clearly structured as a condensed complement to the earlier epics:

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I’ve now read all three in the excellent recent translations by Robert Fagles (I like that he produced these works in chronological order, but The Aeneid was the last major translation of his long and storied career; he died only two years after publishing it, in 2008). My overall reactions to The Aeneid fall under three headings:

Fathers and sons

The first thing that struck me about The Aeneid is its focus on duty and family–themes that resonate strongly with me. I posted about one such passage on another blog.

At the end of book 2, Aeneas faces a choice–take revenge on the villainous Helen, or rescue his family from the crumbling, flaming ruin of Troy? In cinematic fashion, the scene cuts from his enraged face struggling with this decision to him running through the bowels of the city, young son in his hand and elderly father on his back.

In fact, I see another structure here: the first half of the book focuses mostly on his loyalty to his father, looking to the past, and the second half focuses on his loyalty to his son, looking to the future.

Indeed, the end of book 6–his visit to his father in the underworld, and the unveiling of his divine new shield, with its illustration of his people’s glorious destiny–is the perfect transition between the two. The quote below comes right at the midpoint of the tale, and gives me goosebumps.

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Book 8, lines 854-858

Of course, the little boy from the beginning of the story grows up over the years, and by the great battle at the end, he is a young man fighting at his father’s side.

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Anthony Esolen’s Translation of Dante’s Inferno

downloadI had never read the Inferno because, unlike other classics where there is broad agreement on which translations are the best, opinion here is divided. However, over the summer I read this amazing essay by Anthony Esolen (which I cannot recommend highly enough–it may be the best essay I’ve read all year); I was so impressed that I looked to see what else he had written, and lo and behold, he’d translated Dante.

This book was a beautiful joy from beginning to end. Dante’s story is even better than I’d imagined it would be. I was surprised to see it so full of, what was for Dante, contemporary social criticism. Quite a few of the movers and shakers of his world–men who had wronged him personally–were called out by name and given the retribution of having their eternal torments depicted in poetry. Even more surprising was the fact that popes were among that number (indeed, multiple passages basically say, “Hey, Pope Boniface VIII–you suck!”).

Dante’s criticism even veers into satire at points, with the punishments of hell fitting that “poetic justice” paradigm we expect. He seemingly relishes such opportunities to kick some of his targets when they’re down; for example, noting not only that one kind of sinner might spend eternity with their heads literally turned around backwards, but that the tears they always shed are running down between the cleft in their buttocks. Other sinners are seen wallowing in raw sewage forever. Stay classy, Dante!

This is not to make light of the text at all, though. In fact, the last several sections contain some of the most gruesome, horrific scenes I’ve ever come across in a book (and I read a whole lot of Stephen King as a kid!). The final scene, in the very center of hell, is fantastically graphic: Satan, frozen from the waist down in a lake of ice, has a second and third face on either side of his giant head, and each of the three mouths is eternally chewing on one of the great traitors of history: Brutus, Cassius, and Judas Iscariot. The image is incredibly vivid–below is just one of the more tasteful illustrations I found online.

Beside the text itself, Esolen has given us a great gift in this volume. The translation itself is crisp, clear, and moving, but the other features also make this a great book: the Italian text on each facing page, the extensive endnotes delving into Dante’s references in detail, and a series of appendices that provide excerpts from seminal texts that all informed Dante’s vision. I made frequent use of these, and look forward to a time when I can just sit around all day and absorb them all. For the avid reader of classics, Esolen has provided a truly fine treat.

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Reviewed: Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools

pushout_finalA review in 30 bullet points:

  • In 2005, I read David Shipler’s then-new book The Working Poor, where he used people’s narratives to build a case that the American economy was rigged against those who were poor. The beam in his eye, though, is that nearly all of his dozens of stories read like this: “So-and-so dropped out of high school, got pregnant a few times, and keeps getting arrested for drugs and shoplifting and now she can’t even get a dignified job that pays a living wage, people, it’s a nightmare for this poor victim George Bush is evil!” (His hilarious myopia was perfectly exposed here.)
  • Monique Morris uses the same storytelling strategy to make the case for systemic discrimination against black girls in American schools in Pushout, and she does it by making the exact same mistakes David Shipler made a decade ago. A typical example might look like this: “One student repeatedly cussed out the teacher in front of the class and got into fights and suddenly the random oppressors are giving her grief hey everybody this racist system is broken!
  • Of the many stories in this book, zero ever suggest that any trouble a student ever finds herself in is her own fault, not to any degree. Such a message of null responsibility seems dangerous to give to youth, and unethical for a scholar to promote.
  • Morris constantly alludes to “attitude” and “loudness” among black girls (why is such stereotyping OK for her?), and ascribes these traits to a conscious rebellion against a racist system. Again, this is never defended, nor is any alternative explanation ever explored much less refuted (an inexcusable lapse for a scholar!).
  • The girls’ stories are always treated as objectively factual, with nary a shred of skepticism from the author evident. Not to say that the girls are prevaricating–though why wouldn’t they try to look good for a sympathetic interviewer?–but who’s to say that their perceptions of their experiences are perfect? Why is no space ever given for others involved to explain any shortcomings in the girls’ memories? Or is only one side of the story valid? Only one view is privileged here? (Has Morris never seen Rashomon?)
  • A more accurate–and more honest–assessment of the girls in this book would include a more well-rounded picture of their lives. Do they have two parents at home? Did the adults in the family finish high school? Do their families work and obey the law? If the answers to the above are “no” for most of the girls portrayed in this book, that would seem significant–why hide it? If the answers are yes, that would strengthen Morris’s case, so why not advertise it? Her silence on the subject seems telling. (Or are the “no” answers also the result of racist oppression, in a conveniently permanent self-fulfilling loop of begging the question?)
  • Though Morris often throws out statistics like “X% of all suspended students are Black girls,” she never says how much of the total black female student population that percentage represents. A more useful number would be something like “X% of all black girls in America have been suspended.” A large number there would be indicative of a problem, but as it is, she’s looking at a very narrow area of the whole picture. Such obfuscated reporting is disingenuous.
  • The fact is, the vast majority of black girls are never suspended, never in trouble, and never drop out. The vast majority of black girls in America (and I say this after having taught school at several sites around a large and ethnically diverse city for 16 years) do not match the simplified description of them given by Morris. She derides “caricatures of Black femininity,” but constantly indulges in them herself.
  • Her failure to note all of this, much less deal with it, leads me to wonder why she focuses on such a tiny portion of the population; a minority of a minority, really. I suppose it’s because that’s the only way she can make her case for systemic discrimination.

  • Morris never examines, much less proves, her belief that there even is systemic discrimination. Perhaps she feels this book wasn’t the place for it. Perhaps it’s just received wisdom for her, a commonplace article of faith. At any rate, in light of the above point, there’s an enormous flaw in her theory that she needs to deal with: if there is, in fact, systemic discrimination against black girls in America’s schools, then it must be counted as a spectacular failure, for the vast majority of black girls escape the clutches of its machinations completely unscathed. This would seem to be true for all the other trendy brands of proposed “systemic discrimination” out there, also.
  • The author herself is a black woman. I’m curious what her experiences with this “racist” educational system were. Was she ever suspended? Was she ever in confrontational arguments with teachers? Was she “pushed out” by hostile school personnel? Or was she encouraged by the scores of teachers who live to advocate for minorities? Was she given extra attention and opportunities because she was black and female? And did she herself come from an intact, two-parent, law-abiding family? I wonder what the answers to these questions would say about her thesis.
  • I see from her bio in the book’s jacket that she has an advanced college degree and is married with two children. Looks like she could be a great mentor to these girls. I hope she shared with them how she became who she is today.

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Highly Recommended: Mockingbird

51IwBRUAXyL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_I think I’ve found a new favorite science fiction novel. Mockingbird, by Walter Tevis, is “set in a grim and decaying New York City in the 25th century. The population is declining, no one can read, and robots rule over the drugged, illiterate humans. With the birth rate dropping, the end of the species seems a possibility.”

The most amazing thing about this story is just how uncanny its dystopian vision is. Combine the most prescient parts of Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World and you have this. Actually, it mostly reminded me of Ayn Rand’s Anthem, but where that was just a skeleton of a fable, this is fully fleshed out.

I marked a couple of dozen passages about stupified dependency, obsession with self-fulfillment, and the joys of rediscovering civilization; there are just too many to quote. Instead, here is a picture of one page, where the hero shares a passage from a history book that explains how the world fell. I got chills. This was published in 1980. He saw where things were going perfectly.

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It’s not just a simple tale of society falling apart, though. There’s genuine love and adventure and sadness. Part of it is a Shawshank Redemption-like prison story. Part is wilderness survival. And there’s even more than that.

Just as with another great dystopian sci-fi classic, The Children of Men (which was also about the decline of the human family), there is one f-bomb, powerful for its lone status. At one point, a suicidal robot tells a pregnant woman that she should have an abortion. Let’s just say that I wholeheartedly approve of her response.

Notes and Review: Fair Isn’t Always Equal

51KK0WZvPCL._SX397_BO1,204,203,200_Last semester, administrators at my school bought copies of this book about grading in the “differentiated” classroom for the staff and encouraged teachers to read it. “This is the direction we’re moving in,” we were told. I don’t know if this dictate comes from them or their own bosses far above us all, but based on my notes for this book, I’m worried about that direction.

  • Chapter 3: the first of the big red flags, this quote: “He or she has to understand each student’s ‘truth,’ and convince students that their perceptions are incorrect or incomplete, and that the ‘truth’ the teacher has is the one they should adopt.” (20) Creepy indoctrination much? A similar puppet-master mindset comes across later on page 129: “[grading on a curve is] an obsolete practice indicative of less enlightened times. We’ve progressed…” Fascistic rhetoric really shouldn’t have any place here.
  • The top of page 24 uses the phrase “death bell” when the author means “death knell.” Similarly, the bottom of page 182 mentions “the big questions that get circumnavigated in our daily attempts,” when clearly the word he was looking for was “circumvented.” There are more examples. Such mistakes from an “expert” make me worry.
  • Page 31: “Some students’ mindmaps of their analyses of Renaissance art rival the most cogent, written versions of their classmates.” Yes, but mustn’t everyone learn to write well?
  • Chapter 7: a meandering, pointless mess of gobbledygook here.
  • Page 90: grading is “a single symbol in a tiny box on a piece of thin paper that may or may not make it out from the crumpled darkness of the boom bag–and only if parents ask for it.” Isn’t that a bit of a straw man? Those always worry me. And do the reforms to grades suggested for report cards in chapter 14 really fix this? If not, why not?
  • One problem with edu-expert books like this is that they tend to see each factor of teaching in a neat vacuum, separate from the rest. For instance, Wormeli often paints problems and offers solutions that either have already been solved by 504s and rubrics, or that couldn’t be solved in the ways he suggests because of 504s and rubrics! Chapter 7 has too many examples of this.
  • The mindset behind Chapter 8 is almost entirely proven false by that one simple Woody Allen quote: “80% of success in life is showing up.”
  • Chapter 8: “laziness is a myth…laziness doesn’t exist.” (104) Students aren’t immune to human nature. Nobody is immune to human nature.
  • Page 108: “To purposely set up a compelling goal that everyone else can easily earn but they cannot seems to be a penalty of sorts.” It’s called life. Good grief. America’s young don’t need more bubble wrap.
  • Chapter 9: “There is no solid evidence to support the current emphasis on students doing large amounts of, or even daily, homework.” (120) Besides all the evidence that might be given here, I might suggest Wormeli read up on Robert Marzano’s work, except that he must already know it well–he cites four of Marzano’s books in his own. Seems oddly convenient to ignore him now.
  • Chapter 15 is a weird collection of ways for administrators to manipulate teachers into accepting the advice in this book. Page 185, for instance, suggests slipping an “expert” into the teachers lounge to casually strike up conversations in favor of these reforms. Seriously. The last of many red flags.

Overall, this book seems like slick pseudo-professional propaganda for things like unlimited late work with no penalties, minimum F, and abolishing homework (or graded homework, at least). The author’s tone makes it clear that this is just science, people, not an attempt to make things easier for kids and harder for teachers. Let’s put it this way: if you really were trying to dumb down our system so that more students do well and we all magically look better, isn’t this exactly how you’d do it? Shouldn’t that make us wary?

Not to seem too cynical, I actually highlighted lots of good ideas in the book, but here’s the thing: all of them were reviews of simple, common sense teacher training that had nothing to do directly with the main thrust of the book. So why were those things here? You’d find that same material in any of a number of beginning education textbooks.

I suppose this truly is the direction into which we’re going. The signs are clear. Alas.

 

Highly Recommended: The World’s Strongest Librarian

51HOYIpg0PL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_From this book’s Amazon description: “A funny and uplifting story of how a Mormon kid with Tourette’s found salvation in books and weight lifting.” What’s not to like? Here’s what appealed to me about each part of that summary:

FUNNY: Josh Hanagarne is a natural comedian. His panache for characterization and anecdote are evident on nearly every page, and his memoir is filled with plenty of amusing characters and anecdotes–most chapters start with stories about his work in libraries, which reminded me of the McSweeney’s feature “Dispatches From a Public Librarian,” which I also loved.

UPLIFTING: This is no Hallmark movie. There’s an unvarnished–but still generally lighthearted–feel to this story that does leave you feeling positive about things.

MORMON: Spoiler: Josh ends the book not active in the church, but he is never bitter about it; there’s no axe to grind here. Instead, all of his descriptions of Mormons are positive. He even relates a couple of earlier spiritual experiences and doesn’t try to downplay them–they’re still very real to him. That’s rare and wonderful. Alas, his only references to the Book of Mormon are to lament how boring it is, though.

TOURETTE’S: Josh handles the telling of his experiences with Tourette’s with the same deft narrating that strengthens his humor as well.

BOOKS: I’ll love most anything that name drops as many great titles as lovingly as this book does. Josh has some great taste. I also loved his ecstatic passion for libraries.

WEIGHT LIFTING: Just as with the humor, religion, and Tourette’s, his stories of working out are enthusiastically entertaining, especially the segments towards the end of the book with his main trainer, a perfectly amusing, realistic, and inspiring character.

This is also a fine memoir about a young man starting a family, and loving every tedious and frustrating moment that entails. So really, this book has it all.

 

 

Reviewed: The Anchoress, by Robyn Cadwallader

51mWgMXnxbL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Around the middle of this book, Cadwallader writes, “The silence that grew between them seemed like a third person” (148).  Near the end, we get this similarly poetic description of the same thing: “The silence began as a small and frightened thing, perched on the ledge of the window, but as Ranaulf sat in stillness, it grew, very slowly, and filled up the parlor, wrapped itself around his neck and warmed his back, curled under his knees and around his feet, floated along the walls, tucked into the corners, nestled in the crevices of stone” (263).

This is decent writing, but as these examples suggest, The Anchoress tends to be desperate and pretentious.

That’s true of the book and of the titular character. The anchoress is a young woman in 13th century England who has volunteered to be shut in a small cell to spend the rest of her life meditating and praying in isolation for her village.

That’s great fodder for an original and introspective tale, but the book is held back by more than just repetitive figures of speech.

Though Cadwallader drops in plenty of period vocabulary every now and then, the dialogue is usually so modern that it’s distracting. A lot of this book’s 13th century speech might as well use “like” and “dude,” for all the accuracy it conveys.

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